Bonds, Boundaries, and Bondage of Faith

Religion at the Crossroads in Nigeria

Jacob K. Olupona

Wura-Natasha OgunjiIllustration by Wura-Natasha Ogunji 

Nigeria is the African country with the largest population, almost equal to that of all other West African countries combined. It is the most culturally and ethnically diverse African nation. It is the largest country in the world with an approximate balance between its Christians and Muslims. Despite these centrifugal challenges, Nigeria has overcome all attempts to break up the federation; and has maintained its national and territorial integrity when many smaller and less differentiated countries, like Mali or Somalia, have been divided. This is good news and deserves mention.

Nigerian faith traditions are buoyant at home and abroad, yet these traditions are also at a crossroads. The state needs to be rescued, not only from its moral drift but also from the bondage of religion, manifested as divisiveness and violence. My essay explores this apparent contradiction: the Janus or the Esu face—the ugly and the beautiful—of Nigerian faith traditions.

I was born into an Anglican family, and the lineages of both my father and my mother include well-known Anglican and non-Anglican priests. The religious variety and dynamics in the many villages, towns, and cities where we lived intrigued me, especially the inevitable mixing of traditions. Upon my university graduation in 1975, I served in the National Youth Service Corp (NYSC) in Ilorin at a time when the NYSC was regarded as Nigeria's most significant rite of passage into national life. But 1976 proved a sober year for the Nigerian nation, and for me; in a military coup, drunken soldiers killed our host, the governor of Kwara state, Colonel Ibrahim Taiwo, and the Nigerian head of state, General Murtala Muhammed. At the memorial church service held for the general, the sermon, preached by an Anglican cleric, was based on the biblical text "But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel" (Luke 24:21). These traumatic events spurred my scholarly imagination, and I began to explore the intersection of religious pluralism and civil religion within nation building in Nigeria. I also began to have a deep appreciation for my own religious heritage and the priceless inheritance of religious freedom I enjoyed in southwestern Nigeria. Although not irrelevant for the Yoruba people's self-understanding, religion did not define Yoruba ethnic and cultural identities. The multi-religious traditions of Islam, Christianity, and indigenous religion provided an open space for all.

The insight that propelled my early scholarship was that the ideology and rituals of Yoruba sacred kingship are what define Yoruba civil religion and are at the center of Yoruba identity.1 Civil religion is the incorporation of common myths, history, values, and symbols that relate to a society's sense of collective identity. Yoruba sacred kingship formed a sacred canopy that sheltered the followers of each of the three major faith traditions in Nigeria, forging bonds of community identity among them. Civil religion can be understood as the manner through which the symbols of Nigerian nationhood take on religious significance for the wider Nigerian public, above and beyond particular cultural communities of faith.

Do not misunderstand me: I am interested in the project of civil religion and its functional relevance in a religiously pluralistic society, but I do not advocate the erasure of conventional religious traditions. Nigeria is a religiously pluralistic society, and institutional religion continues to grow in relevance and in the national imagination. It is invoked in conversations concerning nation building, Maitatsine and Boko Haram violence, the secularism debate, the Shari'a debate, the question of Islamic banking, the role of the Organisation of Islamic Conference, the issue of noise pollution caused by religious activities, and so on. Nigerians today immediately ask about the religion of any new official appointed by the president. There is no denying that religion constitutes a critical component of our body politic, or that it will continue to prove critical in the future of civil life.

For my purposes, religion refers not only to institutional religion, the beliefs and practices as they relate to the sacred and transcendent, but also encompasses those values, bodies, and matters normally not regarded as "religion"—such as those rites of passage and ceremonies relating to our various youth brigades, and habits that promote the symbols and values of communalism and national sacrifice. It is important to connect civil religion and civil society, since they involve activities, rituals, and spaces of practice in the performance of religion in national affairs. Religion also encompasses the human, cultural dimensions within faith traditions, such as how human agency shapes, influences, and complicates religious control. Thus, I examine religion not only as a sacred phenomenon, but also as a cultural and human fact brought into being through social interaction. I believe it is important to integrate the sociopolitical dimensions of religiosity into any examination of the crisis of the Nigerian state.

This means that I am concerned with the participation of faith traditions in both private and public spaces.2 Public space provides the arena within which religion is enacted and demonstrated, and the public space is shaped and formed in and through religion. The Western democratic influence on African political structures has resulted neither in the official exclusion of religion from public political life nor in the construction of a secular public space devoid of religion. Evidence demonstrates that African-based religious identities—whether in the traditional, Christian, or Islamic iterations—do not support the wholesale separation of religion, culture, and society. Africans have always commingled what we now understand as "religion" with the activities of daily life; our ethics, and our political and economic structures, engage with religion.

This is why the rhetoric around "secularism" has been worrisome for many Nigerian religionists. Secularism in social science discourse simply means the separation of religion and the state, such that the affairs of each should be managed independently of the affairs of the other, thereby maintaining a "level playing field" for adherents of all faiths (including those of no faith). In my view, the term "secular" has been misused in the Nigerian crisis, exacerbating our problems. It does not imply that society has to be secular (as Nigeria certainly is not), only that the state should not show preferential support for any one particular religion or support religious institutions.

Whatever the contemporary postcolonial crisis is that pervades African social worlds, alongside it are forms of religious understanding that shape and often complicate any possible resolution. This commingling of religion with the moral order of the nation-state both produces the idea of the Nigerian nation-state and unravels its possibility. The Nigerian case requires that we complicate the public/private, religious/secular divide that is customary in the analysis of modern Western societies. These conceptual ideas can be useful in constitutional debates on the place of religion in Nigeria, but they fail to engage the complex meaning of the civic public.3 What is needed is a rethinking of the various publics within which people create religious meaning.

Despite the ethnic diversity that gives blush to our national complexion, our religious diversity is often reduced to a bifurcated, ideological struggle between Christianity and Islam, two seemingly irreconcilable religious worldviews. Though the Nigerian state does not proclaim an official state religion, its founding texts and principles were embedded in Islamic and Judeo-Christian sensibilities, and today its leaders surreptitiously (though unofficially) support several mainstream religious institutions. In response to the pragmatic concerns of daily life, many have incorporated their religious norms into the structures of the state. There is no problem with individual rulers or state representatives professing their faith in private spaces; allowing mainstream religions to impact governance, however, not only marginalizes religious minorities but is detrimental to other traditions. This creates an ethos of exclusivity in which citizenship is defined along religious lines and political power appears to be the exclusive property of certain groups.

This new sense of exclusivity is counter to Nigeria's religious heritage. Although Islam and Christianity have tended to play more significant roles in contemporary Nigeria, indigenous African religious values and worldviews are nevertheless still key to the soul of the people, defining their ontology and organizing their epistemology. For many, including residents in rural areas, but also members of the elite, Nigerian political life has always involved gods, ancestors, festivals, rituals, and the whole gamut of African spirituality. In a way, both Islam and Christianity are forever responding to issues defined by the indigenous moral system. For example, prophecy and revelation through consultations with priests in Islam and Christianity play a similar function to divination and spirit possession in indigenous religion.

The presence of Islam and Christianity in Africa allows Nigerians to participate in these global world faith traditions, and their values have penetrated into our worldviews and social practices. But I think it is also fair to say that in the years of my childhood, Nigeria did a better job with the dynamic intermixing of traditions, because of the enduring role of indigenous moral systems and practices among those professing Islam and Christianity. For example, in the early 1960s in my father's church, the entire local community rejoiced and celebrated when the first imam made the hajj, because it was considered an honor to have the first alhaji in their community. The imam's extended family, mainly Christians, wanted to have a thanksgiving service in the Anglican church in celebration of this community honor. While this may seem incongruous to modern Nigerian sensibilities, this culturally pluralistic community—and indeed this was the case in many other locales in Yorubaland—saw the various religious systems as alternative traditions, to the extent that a devotee of one felt free to consult another. The traditions engaged each other in meaningful, intellectual conversation and practical exchange, underscoring the cultural capital they represent for us.

Today, however, there is an endemic religious crisis, especially in northern Nigeria, where there is regular intra- and interreligious violence. In my view, these conflicts are a manifestation of the profound structural imbalances in the Nigerian state and society. If we are honest with ourselves, a critical, civic public, which is essential for good governance, viable democratic transitions, and meaningful ideas of citizenship, remains grossly underdeveloped in much of Nigeria, especially as the crisis of the nation-state deepens in the context of corporatism, neo-patrimonialism, and neoliberalism. Thus, rather than focus solely on religion, we need to begin a serious conversation on how we build legitimate structures and agencies of civil society (through a well-conceived national educational and civics scheme, for example) and a responsible democratic project that will begin to put in place strong institutions of governance and accountability. Any long-term solution must respond to these deep structural problems.

 

Three concepts guide my analysis of religion in Nigeria: bonds, boundaries, and bondage. First, "bonds." The phrase "bonds of faith," describing the spiritual and religious ties or agreements that form religious communities, points to the essential and existential meaning and functions of religion as it is expressed in its Latin root, religare, "to bind." In Latin, this word denotes that which unites individuals, people, communities, and nations to each other via the ultimate reality, be it God, Allah, or another sacred symbol.

No matter how an article or subject of a faith is defined—Allah, Jesus, Osanobua, or Chineke—the transcendent, numinous, providential being provides a sacred point of reference around which communities are created. These bonds of faith are performed and maintained at locations sacred to those communities that are united together: the ummah, the church, the temples, the shrines, the assembly halls of Jehovah's Witnesses, or the invisible and imagined spaces of what the Yoruba call the sacred mothers (awon iya). Out of these various communities, religious and cultural heroes arise: special individuals and groups who cultivate the religious ties, strengthen the community, and whose calling it is to move the faith beyond its space of origin to other places, both inside and outside Nigeria.4

At the same time, emergent transnationalism, a result of both slave-trade forces and voluntary emigration, has expanded these bonds of faith around the world, to Europe, Asia, the Americas, Brazil, and the Caribbean. In recent years there has been an explosion in the transnational, transregional, and global spread of Nigerian religions, including Nigerian indigenous traditions, Islam, and evangelical Pentecostalism.

We should not forget the unknown ancestors who took Nigerian indigenous religion to the New World during the slave trade from the fifteenth to the eighteenth centuries, and through whom the expansion of West African indigenous traditions in the West occurred. Transnational Orisha and the Cuban Abakua (derived from the enslaved Efik nations of Cross River State) have now become conversion faiths among African diasporic people. Nigeria's indigenous faith, labeled as idolatry and rejected by Nigerian believers, has become the cornerstone of a new faith tradition that boasts millions of adherents in the Americas. Moreover, the new Nigerian religious traditions, particularly the Pentecostal movement, are binding together faith communities transnationally.5 Religious transnationalism recognizes the bonds between home and the diaspora, the creation of multiple centers of faith, and the impact of cultural globalization on local and translocal religious traditions.

My second conceptual and theoretical concern is with the "boundaries" of Nigerian faith traditions, by which I mean the doctrinal and ritual demarcations of the people, groups, agents, and structures that define both local Nigerian faith traditions and "outsider" traditions. My understanding assumes that while faith traditions often endeavor to strictly demarcate themselves, in reality the boundaries of faith are very porous, and faiths intersect and dovetail in surprising ways. The boundaries of faith traditions determine how people define their identities, and religion plays a strong role in individual and communal definitions, for example, Christian or Muslim, Protestant or Catholic.

The boundaries of faith that were the dominant paradigm in the precolonial and colonial periods have been expanded, broken, and transformed into transnational and global formations that are no longer understandable if seen only through the Nigerian prism. Nigeria has created and reengineered faith traditions, and, in doing so, has broken old boundaries, conquered hearts, and expanded into new lands in ways that neither official Nigerian diplomatic relations nor the governmental policies of other nations have done.

Boundaries identify liminal stages, but they can cut in different ways. In spite of ethnic skirmishes, Nigerian faith traditions in the 1960s added color to our humanness, defined our truly plural society, and made us one another's keepers.6 Increasingly, however, Nigeria's religious actors erect boundaries that divide communities and that set up stumbling blocks to the kinds of religious interaction that bonded us as a people and a nation.

The nature of religious society in Nigeria today suggests clear boundaries and demarcations between denominations and faith traditions. The consequence is fierce competition, both within and between traditions. This competition is inimical to nation building, because it makes the public sphere more volatile and at times results in the tragic deaths of civilians. When these issues overlay national affairs, they take a devastating toll on governance, creating civil boundaries and compromising impartiality in the democratic process.7

This leads to my last concept: bondage. Religion in its current Nigerian practices and manifestations has become a major source of national bondage, so much so that it threatens human knowledge and cultural values. Sadly, religious demarcations have become more striking across class lines. Religion and religious fervor now provide a haven where poor and underprivileged Nigerians can find refuge from deplorable living conditions. Meanwhile, religious zeal has become an avenue for the superrich to display their wealth, interpreted as signs of God's beneficence, and to justify their continued exploitation of the suffering souls who, by the logic of material salvation, are "the cursed masses." Modern religions have produced countless misplaced revolts and protests, such as those staged by Maitatsine and Boko Haram. In other words, religion in Nigeria has led to the subjugation of the people, the very opposite of what religion—a bond—was meant to be.

Religion can be a functional force, helping to promote civil society, community values, and education, but it can also become a dysfunctional influence, stifling rational discourse and promoting the belief that only faith and devotional life will solve our myriad national problems. While I believe in prayer and am convinced that a praying people triumphs in times of national crisis, we risk turning God into a magician who, against all odds, can perform miracles to rescue us from our human-created crises. Those who hold such beliefs may be unaware of another dimension of religion, that of a force or phenomenon that frees us from ignorance and requires us to hold our leaders accountable for their moral failures and their reckless disregard for the sufferings of the millions of Nigerian citizens under their care.8

The crisis of religious violence that has engulfed Nigeria indicates that religion, as it is currently expressed, puts individuals, communities, and the nation in bondage. But, paradoxically, religion is also crucial in fighting such bondage. In its functional form, it can help promote peaceful coexistence, the alleviation of poverty, transparency and a lack of corruption, and the pursuit of human happiness through social welfare programs. The debate about whether it is religion or politics that triggers the frequent violence in Nigeria underestimates religion's powerful function in molding cultures and societies everywhere. Throughout the world, religion plays a key role in the identity construction of individuals and groups, including ethnic and national identities.9

In northern Nigeria, the current spate of violence is not purely religious; it may also be social, economic, and political. Religion too often becomes a rallying point around which to articulate political views. The discourse of salvation in evangelical Christianity and jihad in Muslim rhetoric has been used to justify each group's clarion call to aggression. Any time a new leader emerges in our nation, he tends to build a religious castle to ensure his own survival, further aggravating religious sensibilities. A cursory look at events in the past few decades indicates that such religious interventionism happens widely—from the importation of Muslim Marabouts from neighboring countries, as we witnessed during General Sani Abacha's dictatorship, to the upsurge of evangelical Christian proselytization for personal survival among government dignitaries in high places. While there is nothing wrong with southern Christian communities holding on to their faith traditions as minorities in many Muslim regions, Christian evangelical aggression and triumphalist displays of faith may be counterproductive and detrimental to the nation's religious climate. The way that some revival meetings are publicized on billboards—particularly those that portray the faces of foreign evangelists—may have the effect of suggesting to Muslims and other non-Christians that Christians seek to conquer their territory.

The deeper dilemma is that, since only Islam and Christianity remain as the principal expressions of religious identity in Nigeria, the two traditions are confronting each other in the public sphere and competing for the soul of the country. This current bipolar situation stimulates an intolerance of African values and increasingly encourages conversion and violence. Moreover, the religious struggle between these two faiths has resulted in a new cold war between global Islam and the international evangelical Christian communities, with Americans and Europeans beginning to finance, construct, and promote the growth of Christian institutional influences within Nigeria, while the Gulf States finance Islamic movements and institutions.

Where and why did the fulcrum of Nigerian religious history shift from tolerance to intolerance and violence? How did we move from a time when religion was a source of bonding, to today, a time in which religion seems more a form of bondage?10

 

At the dawn of Nigeria's independence, there was widespread recognition of the nation's trifurcate religious heritage: Islam, Christianity, and indigenous traditions. This recognition permeated the political, social, and cultural institutions established after independence. Most state events incorporated invocations of God, based on the assumption that civilians considered God the common denominator among the three traditions. "God talk" became the most significant bond among Nigeria's 350 ethnic groups.11 Although there were skirmishes among traditions during this era, they did not lead to sustained conflicts like those seen in Nigeria in recent decades. The independence era also espoused a central national ideology whereby Nigerian leaders encouraged the promotion of values and culture, recognizing their significance to social development. Scholars in the humanities and social sciences were motivated to research arts, culture, indigenous education, and medicine.12 The early nation builders recognized that modernization does not equate with Westernization and, indeed, that African cultures, including religions, could develop their own forms of modernity. During the landmark 1977 Festival of Arts and Culture FESTAC), large gatherings of African diasporans assembled in Lagos under General Olusegun Obasanjo to reaffirm the authenticity of African traditions, promote these values in national development, and ensure that national objectives included cultural components. This proved to be a turning point in our national life.

Before that moment, indigenous faiths constituted a more active part in Nigeria's collective identity. Indigenous religions conveyed local values and worldviews. Relationships among ethnic cultures, anchored in African myths, rituals, and symbols, reminded all Nigerians that Christianity and Islam were nonindigenous missionary faiths, which had arrived either via trade routes or with the Europeans and which needed to become Africanized in order to achieve legitimacy. This shared understanding encouraged more tolerant strains of Islam and Christianity. In a sense, the indigenous component of Nigeria's cultural memory served as a buffer between Islam and Christianity. The Nigerian faith hearth had three legs, like my grandmother's three-legged cooking hearth, which never allowed her cooking pot to fall off. As the Yoruba proverb says, "Adiro meta ki yebe sina!"13

But in the late 1970s, many Nigerians began to perceive indigenous culture as an enemy preventing the nation's progress into the modern world. This marked a critical juncture in Nigeria's religious history, when the country began its spiral into chaos. As Nigeria embarked upon nation building under various military rulers, particularly in the post–civil war era, we began to witness the erosion of indigenous values and the undermining of the virtues of religious tolerance and mutual engagement. The state failed to understand that the decades of peaceful religious tolerance in the land were the fruits of previous efforts toward modernity and secularism, properly understood. What happened in the post-FESTAC era, then, represents a coalescence of misguided state policies and wanton corruption that deflated people's confidence in the state's neutrality and impartiality toward religion. This was a recipe for factional politics, including religious fanaticism. In this new atmosphere, the two dominant religious factions—Christians and Muslims—became the central players. The opposition to FESTAC by Christian and Muslim religious purists was a real sign of the times. Both Christian and Muslim elites considered FESTAC, with its celebration of black culture and traditions, to be an endorsement of paganism. The backlash it provoked led to Christian and Muslim zealotry at the expense of traditional values. Military rule did not help the situation, as political leaders exploited the geographical distribution of Muslims and Christians in order to consolidate power.

Coupled with this was the gradually increasing influence of some Middle Eastern embassies in promoting a new form of Islamism that valued Arab culture more than black culture. This was also a time when the influence of indigenous Christianity, such as Aladura, which had flowered along with Nigerian nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, began to wane and was replaced by the more vibrant and exhilarative evangelical Pentecostal and charismatic movements.14 In the larger Islamic scene, the late Sheikh Abubakar Gumi championed a new Islamism.15 Gumi's ties with Wahhabi traditions in Saudi Arabia, and his own personal piety, allowed him to speak powerfully to the northern Muslims. It was Gumi who embarked on a program to root out indigenous-flavored Sufi practices in order to promote a new interpretation of orthodox Islam, thus uniting various Muslim groups under the pretext of modernization.16 Gumi's ingenuity provided the basis for the later quest for Islamic rule and a rejection of secularism and the secular nation-state.

The 1980s witnessed significant shifts in the Nigerian religious landscape. Indigenous Christianity began to lose its influence for two reasons. First, global Pentecostal charismatic Christianity denigrated native Christian traditions and promoted foreign cultural values in the guise of religion. Second, the rise of this movement coincided with the economic downturn in Nigeria, during which the currency tumbled and the International Monetary Fund and World Bank forced the state to take an IMF loan with a structural adjustment policy that created wrenching poverty.

Pentecostalism became increasingly attractive to the disadvantaged not only because it promised prosperity, but because it also provided social services that catered to the poor, leading citizens to see faith in instrumental terms. Indigenous Pentecostalism also struck familiar chords in the local cultural repertoire. Indigenous traditions taught that good health, prosperity, and a long life lay at religion's core—the same teaching Pentecostalism offered, though Pentecostalism no longer defined worldly salvation as the exclusive preserve of the gods, but as earthly prosperity and otherworldly bliss. Unfortunately, these religious institutions failed to address the underlying economic problems that caused such poverty. I do not mean to imply that Nigeria's religious institutions were entirely complacent. Some religious leaders fired prophetic warning shots and used their pulpits to call the attention of our leaders to the declining state of our nation.17

By the beginning of the new dispensation and re-democratization era that began in 1999, Nigeria had reached a crossroads. Under a series of leaders, we went through new phases of religiopolitical crisis and saw protests over the implementation of Shari'a, the Miss World Pageant, and Islamic banking. Things are at the point now where virtually any crisis in the core Muslim world sends ripples of anxiety through Nigeria.

 

The question is: Which is the way forward for Nigeria? We need to draw a roadmap for our future, and that map must include directions for the state that acknowledge religious formations at its core. I propose five key steps for applying the lessons of the study of religion to Nigeria's nation-building project.

First, we must develop religious literacy. The country needs to embark on a rigorous educational program in which Nigerian youth will be exposed to the country's many religious traditions, not for the purpose of conversion or indoctrination, but to acquaint them with the traditions that constitute the core of Nigerian religious and cultural inheritance.18 How we teach Nigerian religious wisdom to our youth is central to the success of any religious literacy program. For example, if you ask a Nigerian history student about Shehu Uthman dan Fodio, the great cultivator of Islam in northern Nigeria and the founder of the Sokoto caliphate, the student will most likely inform you that he was the architect behind the jihad whose ideological pursuits led to the northern Nigerian establishment of Islam known today. However, the student is unlikely to know an equally important fact: that education, especially education for women, was integral to dan Fodio's reforms. This intellectual revolution was exemplified by Nana Asma'u bint Shehu Usman dan Fodio (1793–1864), a poet, teacher, Sufi mystic, and educational reformer who could serve as an icon for educated Muslim women in Nigeria.19 Nana Asma'u's life and written works point to women's deep involvement in religion as a form of public, civil practice. Because forceful militarized governance masculinizes so much of civil life, the contributions of women to nation building are especially valuable.

Second, I recommend maintaining a line between private and public expressions of faith. The custodians of communal traditions and culture—the emirs, obas, and obis—must avoid combining personal evangelical espousal of fundamentalist Islam and Christianity with their public faith discourse. Civil leaders should recognize that by virtue of their position, they preside over a diverse community of believers, and they should offer a sacred canopy under which these eclectic traditions can exist.

Third, we must establish and nurture interfaith dialogue. Nigeria is finally making significant progress in intra- and interfaith conversation, and many groups exist that could respond to the need for a viable, ongoing conversation. Yet, meeting only in response to a crisis seems counterproductive; the conversation gets stuck. Moreover, the state sponsors most interfaith dialogues, rendering it difficult to maintain the required neutrality during such conversations. In other countries, robust interfaith initiatives have been sponsored by nongovernmental agents, even in times of peace. And, the test of a successful interfaith endeavor is in praxis, not in its theory of interfaith dialogue.20 We need the same in Nigeria.

Fourth, we need a national orientation that generates an invisible national faith—a form of civil religion—to provide an overarching sacred space for political and social action. The nation should promote and strengthen symbols, rituals, histories, and metaphors pertaining to Nigeria's collective identity. A functioning society requires a set of values to bind it together. Unfortunately, we have yet to create new ones, or to nurture the old symbols and rites that have served this purpose in the past. Nation building is always a work in progress. It requires visionary, transformative leaders who will guarantee that the multiethnic, multicultural, and multireligious identities in Nigeria coexist underneath a single, sacred canopy of the nation-state.

Placing Nigeria within regional and global discourses on issues of social and economic development, it is clear that religion must assume a productive role in our society. As a nation, we must reinforce our society's secularity and our religious pluralism, which, as I have argued, are not necessarily in conflict. Rather than decreeing modernity and secularism, we need to spell out the appropriate ingredients for our modernity and their constitutive relationship with a democratic state that is culturally pluralistic and that takes seriously the varieties of Nigerians' religious values and cultures. Consequently, my fifth and final recommendation is that the state establish a well-funded research institute where critical thinking about religion and nation building can take place. Because of the complex issues surrounding religion, it has become the most unregulated sphere of our nation's life. Security considerations require that we reevaluate the function of religion in Nigeria: Is it primarily violent or nonviolent? Is it used as a tool for other actions? Does it represent the faithful? While Boko Haram may be the extreme case, lesser-known forms of aggression in God's name—such as dangerous and violent forms of witchcraft exorcism in children reported in southeastern Nigeria, or instances in which religious leaders manipulate defenseless citizens—require equally attentive regulation. We must focus our national security agenda not only on extremist religious violence, but also on the quotidian forms of aggression against the nation's most vulnerable citizens.

The reality is that Nigerian faith traditions have evolved from institutions that provided bonding among our people to institutions that establish exclusive boundaries between faiths, subject people to bondage, breed violence, and threaten our national life. Yet a careful look at contemporary Nigerian society suggests that religious institutions also constitute some of our strongest "communities of interest," with significant social and religious capital at their disposal. In part because the Nigerian judiciary has failed to be the arbiter for poor, ordinary citizens, the common person respects and trusts religious leaders and institutions much more than he respects and trusts politicians and the state. Religions, if properly put to use, can have a significant influence on the lives of Nigerians. It behooves all men and women of good will, the nation's leadership, traditional rulers, and civic society to join hands in establishing effective programs to reverse our current course.


From the editors: We wish to thank Jacob Olupona for his wise counsel and practical help in shaping this special issue of the Bulletin. Not only is he a respected scholar in the field of African religious studies, but he is a generous mentor to students, faculty, and staff.


Notes

  1. Sociologist Robert Bellah understands civil religion as the sacred principle and central ethic that unites a people and without which societies cannot function.
  2. Jürgen Habermas, who introduced the public sphere as a theoretical concept, understood it "as a social space—distinct from the state, the economy, and the family—in which individuals could engage each other as private citizens deliberating about the common good." The Power of Religion in the Public Sphere: Judith Butler, Jürgen Habermas, Charles Taylor, Cornel West, ed. Eduardo Mendieta and Jonathan Vanantwerpen (Columbia University Press, 2011), 2.
  3. One example of this complex thinking is Peter Ekeh's formulation of Nigeria's two publics, the civic and the "primodial"; Peter Ekeh, "Colonialism and the Two Publics in Africa: A Theoretical Statement," Comparative Studies in Society and History 17 (1975): 91–112.
  4. Among these leaders are Uthman Dan Fodio, Samuel Ajayi Crowther, the Rev. Thomas Jefferson Bowen, Blessed Cyprian Iwene Tansi, Bishop Shanahan, Garie Braide, and Orunmila of the ancient Ifa tradition, all of whom have transcended the boundaries of Nigeria to expand their communities. For more on Tansi, see Elizabeth Isichei, Entirely for God: The Life of Cyprian Michael Iwene Tansi (Macmillan, 1980).
  5. Monthly revival meetings along the Lagos and Ibadan expressways attract thousands of Nigerians from different regions of the country and from outside Nigeria.
  6. When I took the West Africa school certificate examination in 1969, the first question in the Yoruba language paper asked us to explain a Yoruba Muslim hajj song. If an examination body were to set such a question in the national Senior Secondary Certificate Examination today, Nigerian Christians certainly would protest, assuming that a fanatical Yoruba Muslim examiner had posed the question.
  7. For example, one may find that if the governor of a Muslim-majority state adheres to Christianity, his constituents will require the state to appoint a Muslim to share that leadership post.
  8. The former primate of the Anglican Church and archbishop of Abuja, Bishop Jasper Akinola, recently brought attention to the public discourse on prayer when, in a sermon, he dared the nation's elite, including Nigeria's president, to say "amen" to his prayer that God would punish those Nigerian elites who had been unfaithful to the Christian tradition by breaking one of Christianity's cardinal commandments, "Thou shall not steal from the nation's treasury." Needless to say, not a single soul responded with the required "amen," although Ruben Abati, the president's spokesperson, later gave a strange excuse for the silence: the president unfortunately had used his quota of "amen's" that day and could not respond to the archbishop's prayer!
  9. See Identity and Religion: International, Cross-Cultural Approaches, ed. Hans Mol (Sage Publications), 1978.
  10. I use these terms as typologies; they are ideal types rather than absolutes (drawing from Max Weber's formulation). To assert that religious bondage consumes the country does not mean that strong manifestations of productive bonding in contemporary Nigerian communities no longer exist. Rather, my goal is to examine the nation's transition from religion as a unifying force to religion as a divisive force.
  11. Bolaji Idowu's Nigerian independence lecture, "God in Nigerian Beliefs and Practices," organized by the Nigerian Broadcasting Corporation in October 1960, was the first and perhaps only occasion when this triple heritage was explicitly articulated by one of the nation's founding figures.
  12. Scholars like Adeoye Lambo in psychiatry and Babs Fafunwa in education responded to the national call to indigenization with successful results, not to mention the Nsukka physicists who, despite their suffering during the civil war, offered Nigeria the benefit of their scientific knowledge to spur technological development. Similar moments in the histories of other nations, such as South Korea, Malaysia, and India, inspired political, technological, and economic emancipation and advancement.
  13. "The three-legged hearth does not fail."
  14. Aladura Christianity promoted traditional values within a Christian framework, proving that African Christianity can be as rich and authentic as Western Christianity. For example, their adoption of African hymnals indicated the seriousness with which they responded to the African indigenous worldview.
  15. Sheikh Gumi was not the founder of the Izala movement, but was its spiritual father. He trained many preachers in the Wahhabi tradition, and one of them, Ismail Idriss, founded Izala (the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Reinstatement of Tradition). During the First Republic, Gumi was the main adviser on religious affairs for Premier Ahmadu Bello. He was also the ideologue behind Jamaat Nasr al-Islam, the Islamic organization Bello founded in Kaduna in his subtle attempt to transfer the center of religious authority from Sultan Abubakar III, based in Sokoto, to Kaduna.
  16. In the northern region, via the 'Yan Izala movement (in Arabic, Jamā'al Izālat al-Bid'a a wa Igamat as-sunna), Sheikh Gumi waged war against more tolerant, native forms of Sufi tradition in the Tijaniyya and Qādiriyya Sufi brotherhoods, because he believed they brought unacceptable innovation to Islamic practices. For more on 'Yan Izala, see Ousmane Kane, Muslim Modernity in Postcolonial Nigeria: A Study of the Society for the Removal of Innovation and Reinstatement of Tradition (Brill, 2003).
  17. For example, in 1982, during his second visit to the Bigard Memorial Seminary in eastern Nigeria, Pope John Paul II—who had chastised activist priests in Latin America and Europe—marveled at the apparent silence of Nigerian priests facing sociopolitical oppression in Nigeria under the military. In a speech citing liberation theology's basic components, he challenged them to rise up against their oppressors and liberate the poor from socioeconomic deprivation. Against all odds, several Nigerian religious leaders acted on the pope's admonition, speaking out and making their voices heard.
  18. Ideally, religious literacy should be pursued by scholars in religious studies departments in Nigeria's universities, but this has become difficult in recent decades as these departments are increasingly controlled by Christians, and Arabic and Islamic studies departments by Muslims, such that both have become too much like seminaries pushing partisan agendas. Given Nigeria's present climate of religious partisanship, it is an uphill struggle to pursue the neutral, objective study of religion.
  19. In his 2011 Jodidi lecture at Harvard's Weatherhead Center, Sultan of Sokoto Alhaji Muhammadu Sa'adu Abubakar III recalled Nana Asma'u's life, and, during the dinner following his speech, an audience of almost two hundred attendees heard Nana Asma'u's poetry recited.
  20. When Somalian al-Qaeda operatives killed worshipers in Kenyan churches in July 2012, I was discouraged, as a Nigerian, to hear the reactions of some Kenyans on the BBC: "We will not allow them to turn Kenya into what Boko Haram has turned Nigeria into." This tragic event was followed by an action that will very likely surprise Nigerians: Kenyan Muslim youth formed vigilante groups to protect the thirty-three Christian churches around the site of the massacre. "They are minorities among us," the young people said, "and our religion enjoins us to protect them."

Jacob K. Olupona, Professor of African Religious Traditions at Harvard Divinity School and Professor of African and African American Studies in Harvard's Faculty of Arts and Sciences, is a noted scholar of indigenous African religions. Recent books include In My Father's Parsonage: The Story of an Anglican Family in Yoruba-Speaking Nigeria (University Press PLC, 2012), and City of 201 Gods: Ilé-Ifè in Time, Space, and the Imagination (University of California Press, 2011). In 2007, he received the Nigerian National Order of Merit (NNOM). This is an edited and revised version of a lecture he gave at the NNOM Forum of Laureates in December 2012.